An interesting history lesson of a movie, Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of the three surviving World War II servicemen from the famous "raising the flag on Iwo Jima" photograph, who were plucked from the battlefield and put to work on the home front, ordered to beg the American citizenry to buy war bonds.
The film contrasts – effectively, if repetitively – the horrors these men saw in the Pacific with the cake-and-ice cream world of propagandistic galas. The irony is not lost on any of them, particularly Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the Pima Indian whose own blunt honesty about the war, compounded by his shell-shocked alcoholism and the racism that pervaded his life even when he was being ferried around as a "hero", drives him nearly to madness and eventually to a sad ruin.
The film really is Hayes's story, as the other two servicemen – Ryan Phillippe as the blank John "Doc" Bradley and Jesse Bradford as the well-meaning if opportunistic Rene Gagnon (who never even fired a shot at Iwo Jima) – obey their orders and sink into the background. Beach is extraordinary, and his performance makes Flags of Our Fathers well worth seeing.
Yet Eastwood, as director, somehow misses his mark at effectively conveying the impact of the war on his protagonists. Admittedly, Saving Private Ryan set the bar sky high for capturing warfare on film. Unless Eastwood out and out copied Spielberg's style, there's no way he could top the intensity of the earlier film's opening sequence.
I also think Eastwood's decision to break the film into flashbacks may not have been as strong as telling the story chronologically. With all the battlefield flashbacks, the only message we get is, "They're living it up with senators now, but a few months ago they were going through hell!" And we hear it over and over again.
Still, Flags of Our Fathers is a well-made film, certainly educational and demystifying. I for one knew nothing about the men in that photograph, or how they were used as show ponies for the war effort. But I'm hoping that Eastwood's promised follow-up feature, about the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese soldiers' point of view, will have more to say.